McCann family searches for answers

Family hasn’t lost hope after elderly motorhome-driving couple go missing

Chris Schwarz/Edmonton Journal

Since his parents went missing, Bret McCann has had his hands full fielding media inquiries and making broadcast appearances on behalf of his family. “For a while there we were going to studios almost constantly,” says the St. Albert, Alta., engineer. “We had to be up at 5:30 in the morning to do Canada AM.” The McCann family has also been busy creating a Facebook page and a stand-alone website devoted to the search for Lyle, 78, and Marie Ann, 77, who were last seen on a security-camera video fuelling up their motorhome in St. Albert on July 3.

Sorting out possible tips from well-intended messages of support is time-consuming, and every word from soft-spoken Bret testifies to his exhaustion. “But what I’m kind of dreading,” he admits offhandedly, “is the day the reporters don’t call.”

The McCanns’ planned journey was one that Lyle could probably have captained in his sleep. He spent most of his working life as a long-haul trucker, and the roads leading over the Rockies to the coast were his bread and butter; he had an archaeologist’s knowledge of the year-to-year changes along the Yellowhead Trail. Lyle and Marie Ann, who have lived in St. Albert since 1964, intended to meet daughter Trudy Holder at the airport in Abbotsford, B.C., on July 10.

No one thought there was a need to keep tabs on the independent, healthy pair while they were in transit. But the McCanns are meticulous and considerate, so their daughter immediately sensed trouble when they missed their rendezvous. The children—Trudy, Bret, and Lance, who inherited his father’s St. Albert-based trucking business about a decade ago—made a call and discovered that Lyle and Marie Ann had also failed to make a planned stopover with older friends in Kelowna the previous day.

Unbeknownst to the trio, there were already much more disturbing signs of trouble. The McCanns left St. Albert towing a Hyundai Tucson SUV behind their 1999 Gulf Stream Sun Voyager motorhome. On July 5, the larger vehicle was found on fire in a forest cutline not far from a campground near Edson, about 200 km west of St. Albert. Firemen arrived too late to save the Sun Voyager, but an RCMP officer was able to retrieve the registration card. According to initial reports, that officer tried to call the absent McCanns, and, on getting no answer at their residence, handed the file over to the St. Albert detachment for further investigation.

The manager of the campground told police that he had seen both the motorhome and the SUV pull into his facility, and had knocked on the door of the RV but had gotten no answer. Before long, both vehicles had moved on. The immolated Sun Voyager—towed to a police impound lot in Edson—remained in administrative limbo for a heartbreaking five days until the McCanns contacted the RCMP about their vanished parents. The force, unusually quick to acknowledge the possibility of carelessness, says it is conducting an internal review of the handling of the case, and that an Edson officer has been limited to desk duty in the meantime. More than mere time was lost as a result of the error; the removal of the vehicle from the clearing also compromised a possible crime scene.

Still more eyebrows were raised later in the week, when it transpired that Prince George resident Diana Bjorklund had gone to her hometown local RCMP detachment with her father on July 12 to report a sighting of the Tucson, complete with licence-plate number. The Bjorklunds were brushed off (supposedly by a civilian employee) without having their contact information taken down, and the Mounties were forced to put out a humiliating public appeal for the tipsters to come back. Ms. Bjorklund did so, reluctantly, telling CBC Radio that she felt “insulted” by the indifferent treatment she received: “They said [our sighting] was irrelevant because it was four days ago, five days ago.”

The RCMP, left to atone for its early blunders, gradually responded with a display of its historic strengths—knowledge of western communities and sheer manpower. The McCanns’ SUV was recovered on July 16 near Carrot Creek, 30 km east of Edson. On the same day, the Mounties announced that they had identified a “person of interest” in the case—38-year-old Travis Edward Vader. Vader was already wanted on outstanding warrants after a sequence of arrests, bailouts, and missed court appearances on matters involving drugs, stolen property, weapons, and arson. The RCMP described him as dangerous, and quickly focused their search on a cluster of Yellowhead County hamlets east of Edson—including Carrot Creek, MacKay, and Niton Junction—where Vader had grown up and had been spotted recently.

Area residents concurred with the police’s evaluation of Vader, painting a complex picture of a hard-working, intelligent kid from a good family who had gone on to become a successful drilling consultant. With the downturn in the Alberta oil patch, Vader was forced to sell his equipment and had become an ominous, short-tempered presence haunting the hotel bar in Niton Junction. When the police held a Friday night community meeting in MacKay to discuss the hunt for Vader and to share information, Vader’s own father, according to the Edmonton Journal, warned attendees that “if you tried to corner [my son] out here, you would be dead.” But this proved false: when the police located Vader at a rural residence near Niton Junction on Monday, RCMP and Edmonton Police Service tactical units swooped in, arresting him and another individual without incident.

Unless Vader has answers, the vigil will continue for the McCann family. The police, though suspecting the worst, have not specified why they want to question Vader. There have been no confirmed sightings of Lyle and Marie Ann since July 3, and no physical trace of them was found in either vehicle. “We’re trying to focus on the chance that my parents are somewhere out there, maybe in the bush,” says Bret. “My dad is in his late seventies but he’s very vigorous. He’s getting a bit frail, but just a couple weeks ago he was here cutting down trees in my yard. He’s resourceful. If he’s out there, I’m confident he can take care of Mom.”

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